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Immersion in Spain

From Almost-Canada to Almost-Africa

By Maris Yurdana, 2014 homestay immersion participant to Spain

The view from my bedroom window in Portland, Oregon and in Estepona, Spain

If you ever plan on traveling abroad, go with your mind as open as it has ever been, and expect to be stretched at that.

Before I left for Spain, I had a pretty good sense how to navigate one month living in another country with a family of strangers. I had heard “go with the flow” “try all the foods” “try not to compare everything to the US” and much more along those lines. Indeed, those words and many others that people will tell you are fantastic advice. But there’s one thing missing from that long to-do list for a home stay, and that is this: go into your experience with a passionate, unfaltering desire to make a connection with everything. People, places, foods, stories, the smell of the air, and the deeply rooted culture. Everything. Of course, this isn’t always easy. But it’s worth every minute of it.

Going on an exchange for one month has been the most humbling, yet empowering thing I have ever done in my life. I learned how to be grounded when literally everything around me was different and plans constantly changed. I learned how to accept change as a positive thing, to live in the moment, and to appreciate things we often take for granted, and much more. I believe those are some of the most important skills in not just working with people, but going through life in general.

Human connection

A typical street of AndalucĂ­a (a southern region of Spain, where Estepona is): narrow streets lines with flower-adorned white houses.

A healthy dynamic with your host family is, hands down, the most important aspect to your home stay. I feel that this is under-emphasized, because the focus is always on the different language, food, and customs of the culture you’re being immersed in. But the true aspect of having a successful, enjoyable home stay isn’t only these larger things. It’s the smaller, more intimate aspects of the experience. When you’re comfortable and feel good about the situation with your host family, you feel on top of the world. If there’s tension, no matter how good the rest of your experience is, there’s a nagging feeling within you that you just aren’t being how you think you’re supposed to be. And this feeling can quickly spiral; turning a wonderful day into one where you wish you could just go home. Never experiencing any degree of this feeling is impossible, but I personally only felt it in tiny, infrequent amounts. I believe it was a combination of both my constant desire to make the best of every situation and the fact that I honestly could not have asked for a more welcoming, kind, loving host family.

Living with people I didn’t know at first is one of the best learning lessons I have ever been through. It puts you in such a human situation, where you’re thrown into a world where nothing is the same and you find security in the human connection. It can be hard to attain at first, or maintain after a while, but it’s the most beautiful, rewarding, and satisfying aspect of your exchange. The language comes, that’s just a given. So will experiencing the town, the night life, the beach, the food. Those aspects will just happen. But it’s the effort put in, and the open-mindedness about your family that will make relationships as meaningful as they can be. It’s hard at times, of course. People underestimate how hard it is being in a culture where people don’t always understand your way of thinking, working, eating and living. But being able to live with it and make your way, while creating friendships and a community, is so huge; it’s humbling and empowering.


One of the many kioskos (kiosks), which are placed on the corners of streets. They sell things like candy, ice cream, drinks, etc. One of my most embarrassing Spanish mistakes was made when asking for a bottle of water at one of them!

The most difficult part of speaking Spanish for me wasn’t the act of literally getting the words out. It was that I couldn’t express myself as clearly in Spanish. It’s often underestimated how hard that is, being immersed in a place where you’re unable to express your intelligence. It’s not that I wasn’t myself in Spain, but the language barrier made it impossible to act as I normally would in English. Self-expression became the number one hardest aspect of my experience. Not simply getting my basic wants and needs met, but being about to connect and make friends in a way I knew how. However frustrating it could get, this act of putting myself into such an unnatural situation was the most crucial part of bettering my Spanish.

The first time I had a conversation with another exchange student living in Estepona, in English, I remember thinking "oh my gosh it's not only me!!" to just about everything she was saying. It was then, and in the other English conversations I was able to have while in Spain that I was reminded of how valuable easy communication is. These times spent talking in English were both soothing breaks and further inspiration to keep working on my Spanish. Being able to reflect throughout the experience with someone other than myself was another component that I believe every exchange student needs.

Religion & value differences

This is the street looking up to my host family’s Evangelical church, Cristo Vive. It was always a gorgeous (and long!) walk going to and from the services.

I’m not religious, but going to church twice to three times a week with my host family was an experience I wouldn’t have changed for anything. The exposure I got to it made me see beauty in religion which before I had been blind to. As I attended the services, sang the songs, and formed friendships with the people, I was able to self-reflect a lot on what values I personally hold- some similar and some vastly different. Listening to the pastor preach was fantastic Spanish practice, but when I wasn’t fully listening I was able to step back and focus less on what was actually being said, and more on the feeling and beauty of such a dedicated, loving community.

My host family is strongly Evangelical, and has been for generations; their roots are Italian and they lived in Uruguay for decades before coming to Estepona. Spain is almost an entirely Catholic country, both religiously and culturally. So my experience at church was definitely not the average Spanish one. Being thrown into a culture that is so completely different to my own was almost unbelievable. But not a moment went by where I shut myself off to what was going on around me, and I kept my heart open to all differences I was surrounded by.

Not to say that by accepting the differences I was agreeing to them; there were many topics that I had entirely different views upon than everyone I met in Estepona. It’s such a boundary pushing experience to learn to live with and love someone who shares such vastly different views on society, social controversies, and values in general. What’s right and what’s wrong. But the most beautiful thing was after the first couple of weeks, both my relationship with my host sister became stronger and my vocabulary in Spanish grew, and our conversations had more depth. Although we disagree on some things, we never a grudge past 5 minutes of talking about it, just like you wouldn’t with family. This is when I really knew how meaningful the relationships I’d been making had become.

Night culture & teenage values

Melanie, my host sister, and I with our friend Chris, from Belgium, who spends every summer in Estepona.

Typical to Spain, the hardest transition on my body was the pattern of going out at night starting around 11pm or midnight, and staying out for hours. This isn’t even just for people within my age range, we regularly saw elderly people and families with young children out at hours that here in the US would be unheard of. I love the freedom people have with this; there’s a very different atmosphere when going out at night. Harder than the transition to being out late, was coming back and not having that cultural aspect here whatsoever.

One thing I was really surprised about is how much people party. Not that it’s overly excessive, because the US gets a bad rap on that. Maybe it’s because I come from Portland, where party culture isn’t the same as Miami, Santa Barbara, etc. But here in the States, only certain people are a part of that, and it’s not even close to our entire American population. In Spain, it’s EVERYONE. The teenage generation has always been about that, as a generalization. For young people in the US, the mainstream idea is to get a job as soon as you can, for experience and to start actually making money of your own, and to move out after high school and live with people your own age starting around age 19. It’s normal in Spain to live with your parents until your mid-twenties. Working as a teenager in Estepona is unheard of, unless it’s an absolute necessity. One comment I will never forget that was made to me was “Marisa, we have our whole lives to work! These years are for partying, having fun, and getting to know people.” And to me it was just so strange to experience the vast majority of people’s culture following exactly those words.

Sports & clothing

A picture taken by Melanie, of me on my twice weekly runs to try and stay in alright shape for cross county. She would always insist to accompany me on her roller blades and take pictures along the way.

While in Spain I realized just how American “sports culture” is. Yes, the Spanish are crazy about futbol (soccer), and have many other sports too. In fact, while heading back to Portland from Barcelona, I saw the national women’s water polo team coming back from a Eurasian competition with first place medals around their necks. But really, minus futbol, sports are athletes, and that’s it. There are no school sports in neither primary nor secondary education. If you want to be athletic at all, you have to join a gym. Here in the States almost every student is, at some point in their lives, going to play a sport. Look at our media, what’s on TV. Look at the younger generation’s style of clothes. Look at how adults have been teaching life lessons to their children for generations, and how families spend time together. Sports are incorporated into it all. Not everyone’s family of course—mine for example doesn’t fit into that generalization, but there’s no hiding from the sports culture here. The friends I made in Spain thought it was so incredibly weird that I brought sports clothing to wear around the house and run in, and that I brought sweatpants with my school’s cross country logo on them. There they were in their adorable, girly comfy clothes, wondering what was wrong with me, shocked that I didn’t have heels and tight dresses packed in my suitcase. I was made completely aware that my home city, the fitness obsessed, Nike capital of the world in the Pacific Northwest has influenced my view on fashion more than I ever imagined.

Appreciation & Differences

Looking south down La Playa de Estepona, the beach right in front of downtown. It was constantly packed with people, so normally we would go to beaches just outside of the city.

What I’ve touched on so far is just a fraction of everything I’ve learned and thought about on my exchange. After the honeymoon phase of my stay I starting thinking of how grateful I am for all that I have in the US. Raised in a very un-mainstream family; I had been very adamant about not wanting to ever raise my children here. But what I realized in Spain is that I had really only been seeing the negative, mainly societal aspects of growing up in the US (and believe me, there are many). But what I hadn’t had the perspective to see are all of the benefits. I don’t just mean that this country is richer than most. I was thinking that every other European country had all the productivity, work ethics, and social life values that the US does, just with more culture and family value. And this is not true. It’s always going to be a give and take, whatever country or culture that you’re in.

Spanish societal culture in general is much more sexist than that of the US, with the roles of women and girls still being at a level which I consider ancient. Yet almost every beach I went to, people were sunbathing topless, more comfortable with their bodies than any American I have ever met. People who grow up in the US have a sense of responsibility and time management that I have yet to see in a Spaniard, while I have never met people so relaxed, open, and full of laughter as the friends I’ve made in Spain. In the US we hug, in Spain we kiss on each cheek. The list of giving and taking goes on and on, and I think the best part of an exchange is to be familiar and comfortable with both.

The deepened understanding and love I have for experiencing other cultures, because of my trip, have changed me in so many ways it’s impossible to list them all; some I haven’t even realized yet. I think one of the most important things you can do in life is realize all the differences between people and cultures, acknowledge them, and understand their significance in peoples’ lives. And with this understanding, have wonderful experiences and connect with people who will have a huge impact on your life. By doing this, individual by individual, I truly believe that the world becomes a more peaceful and compassionate place.

For more information about our immersion programs in Spain, check out these pages!
Summer in Cadiz
Summer in San Sebastian
Summer in Tarragona
Group trip to Spain


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